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Globe and Mail article - Ross and Kelowna Mountain - October 25, 2007

Blog by | October 26th, 2007


Pro athletes make a sport of real estate - Globe and Mail October 26, 2007

Pro athletes make a sport of real estate

Competitive attitudes key to sports stars' real-estate success

From Friday's Globe and Mail

Ross Rebagliati may be known as the first snowboarder to win Olympic gold, but his real estate investments have put him at the top of his game.

Mr. Rebagliati made his first purchase at 20, when he bought a Whistler, B.C., home for $200,000, using racing prize money as a small down payment. He later sold the property for $385,000 and that's when, he says, a "light bulb went off." He realized that real estate could be more lucrative than the $50,000 a year he was making as a professional snowboarder.

Today he owes his success to a series of property investments, including the ones he's made in Kelowna Mountain resort, where he's also director of its snowboard and skiing academy. He shares a passion for real estate with his wife Alexandra, the realtor in the family.

"I'm washed up already at 36, in terms of being a professional athlete," says Mr. Rebagliati. "But this is the best position that I've been in with regard to my future.

"In snowboarding, you don't come out of it with scholarships or dental."

The shelf life of a professional athlete is a short one, and real estate, whether it's flipped, developed, or entered into as a business, is a viable option for many professional athletes. With investment advisers often coaching them, entrepreneurial-minded athletes have discovered they have a talent for the real estate game.

One of the most successful examples is hockey Hall of Famer Serge Savard, who won eight Stanley Cups in 15 seasons with the Canadiens. He is a partner in Montreal-based Thibault, Messier, Savard & Associates real estate firm.

Ex- Maple Leaf Mike Walton is a Re/Max real estate broker and speculative purchaser involved in high-end housing and commercial properties.

"A lot of hockey players do go into it for whatever reason, and some do better than others, some last longer than others," says Mr. Walton. "But with any business it doesn't matter what you're doing — you have to love it."

Mr. Walton played in the National Hockey League throughout the sixties and seventies and retired in 1980, at age 35. He's 62 now, and figures he's represented about 80 per cent of the Leafs, including Tie Domi, Andrew Raycroft and Doug Gilmour.

"Most of the Maple Leafs, I've done the deals for them," says Mr. Walton.

Today's athletes have more money and business people around them, says Mr. Walton. Players are better prepared in terms of financial planning than ever before.

"These accountants and finance people come into play — because whether it's a long time or short period, if they're in the upper half of the league, they're making big money and that money can come and go," he says.

"There's a lot of pressure on an athlete.

"The career is sometimes short and it can be over as soon as you start."

Fame can open doors for an athlete, but they've got to have something to back it up.

In 2001, a deal with a Washington buyer soured for Mr. Rebagliati when the buyer, who took a loss in the dot-com downturn, couldn't afford to close the deal. He entered into what he now considers an ill-conceived payment arrangement with the buyer, and, as a result, Mr. Rebagliati found himself broke for a couple of years. He remembers changing the address on his house so the repo man couldn't find his truck. When the deal finally closed, he immediately paid off the truck.

"I wrote them a cheque for the whole amount and they said, 'We thought for sure it was the end of Ross Rebagliati.' That was an extreme circumstance."

But he built himself back to a better position than before, which is part of what makes athletes good at the real estate game.

"If you are going to be a successful athlete, you have to forget about bad things and have a positive, competitive attitude," says Colliers International vice-chair Kelly Heed. Former Edmonton Eskimos Hall of Famer Rod Connop is an associate vice-president in Colliers' Edmonton office. CFL players Paul McCallum and Jason Claremont work for Colliers in the off-season.

"It is key to success in sales,' he says. "You can't be looking back — you have to be looking forward."

It's no coincidence Vancouver Canucks' Trevor Linden entered the world of property development when he became a partner in a stylish Vancouver condo building called West.

Mr. Linden, who's 37, knows that few players keep going past 40, and he'll soon want to reinvent himself.

"Let's face it, you can be a very old hockey player one day and very young man the next day when you retire because you're still in your 30s for the most part. You've still got a life in front of you," says Mr. Linden.

"Some can afford to do nothing. Some aspire to go on and do careers completely independent of the game. Certainly, I think a lot about what path my career might take after hockey."

Mr. Linden's first real estate investment was in 1991, when he purchased a Montana lot for $40,000 (U.S.). Today, he also owns a home in Vancouver's Kitsilano Point, another on Point Grey Road, and the condo development, which he is co-developing with younger real-estate flipping brother Jamie, architect Howard Airey and investment adviser Jeff Watchorn.

"I've noticed that symmetry between playing hockey and talking to people in the business world," says Mr. Linden. "That common theme always seems to keep arising — with whatever business you're in, you're really working at a well-rounded team.

"You're defining roles. You're making sure you've got all your bases covered. Your group is focused on what needs to be done… . That is a critical part of being successful and that's something that hockey players understand."

Nowhere is that team spirit more in evidence than at Victoria's 1,200-acre Bear Mountain Resort. The chief executive and primary investor is former NHL player Len Barrie, who retired from hockey at 33, five years ago. His co-investors are 15 other NHL players, guys like Mike Vernon, Rob Niedermayer, Ray Whitney, Ryan Smyth and Greg Adams. They now have 700 employees. When finished, Bear Mountain will have 6,000 homes, townhouses or condos, as well as two Jack Nicklaus-designed golf courses and a spa and boutique hotel.

"I never made millions a year so I was the guy who knew I had to do something after [hockey]," says Mr. Barrie.

"One thing about athletes and the reason why I hired these guys is because as an athlete, failure isn't an option," says Mr. Barrie. "You have to win."